Trump stumbles back into the birther issue
As polls showed the presidential race drawing almost even, Donald Trump drew attention away from his faltering Democratic opponent by reigniting the birther controversy last week. At an event largely dedicated to showing off his new hotel in Washington, D.C., the Republican nominee acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the U.S., and blamed Hillary Clinton for launching the unfounded rumors that Obama wasn’t a “natural-born citizen.” Trump also insisted he had resolved the issue by pressuring the president into releasing his birth certificate in 2011. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said. “I finished it.” Clinton’s aides said a single unpaid volunteer forwarded a birther email in 2008 and was promptly fired, and neither Clinton herself nor her campaign ever suggested Obama was born abroad. Clinton called on Trump to apologize to the president. “[Trump’s] campaign was founded on this outrageous lie,” she said. “There is no erasing it in history.”
Trump also stirred controversy by suggesting that Clinton’s Secret Service detail should stop carrying guns, in order to show her the importance of Second Amendment rights. “Let’s see what happens to her,” he said. “It’ll be very dangerous.” His son, Donald Jr., later came under fire for repeating several themes from white nativist websites, including a tweet likening Syrian refugees to poisoned candy. “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you,” read the tweet, “would you take a handful?”
In the RealClearPolitics.com national poll average, Clinton’s headto-head lead over Trump fell to just 1 point, 45 to 44—down from 6 points at the end of August. Polls also showed Trump leading or tying Clinton in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida, and Iowa. FiveThirtyEight.com’s election forecast puts the Republican nominee’s chances of winning the election at 43.2 percent, up from 26.2 percent at the start of September.
What the editorials said
“Trump deserves about as much credit for this ridiculously belated admission as he should get for declaring that the Earth is round,” said USA Today. The only reason he backed down was to convince moderate Republicans “that he’s not a racist.” His “crackpot theory” not only undermined the legitimacy of our country’s first black president, it also “breathed life into a radical, bigoted fringe in America”—who are now Trump’s most ardent supporters. Birtherism was Trump’s “Big Lie,” said The Washington Post, and it’s too late for him to undo the damage. Thanks to Trump’s dogged perpetuation of this “monumental falsehood,” a recent poll found that 67 percent of Republicans still say that Obama was not born in the U.S., or that they’re not sure where he was born.
Trump’s claim that it was Clinton who started the birther movement is arguably his “most brazen lie” yet, said the New York Daily News. It was Trump alone who “lifted birtherism from the internet’s fever swamps to the mainstream,” and “only a sociopath” would then try to shift blame for his own reprehensible actions to his opponent. Even after Obama released his long-form birth certificate in 2011, Trump repeatedly insisted that an “extremely credible source” told him the certificate was “a fraud.” When asked earlier this year where Obama was born, Trump responded: “Who knows?”
What the columnists said
Trump will always be a birther, said Jamelle Bouie in Slate.com. Attacking Obama as a secret Muslim born in Kenya was “the catapult that launched him into conservative fame,” which culminated in his winning the Republican nomination. Trump’s belief that nonwhite Americans are inherently suspicious is “the core of his political identity”—the position that “gives coherence to his attacks on Mexican and Muslim immigrants.” For African-Americans, Trump’s birtherism is more than “an unsavory campaign tactic,” said Isaac Bailey in Politico.com. It’s a personal affront—proof that no matter how much we achieve, we are foreigners in our own country, vulnerable to unfounded accusations, “forever having to get the approval of white men.”
Trump’s campaign aides must be tearing their hair out, said Eliana Johnson in NationalReview.com. After a terrible week for Clinton—in which she denounced half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” and got caught lying about her pneumonia—her poll lead nearly vanished, and people were starting to believe Trump could win. By putting an old, damaging issue “front-andcenter,” he has “squandered” that momentum. “The old Trump has returned.”
Despite Trump’s poll gains, Clinton “remains in the driver’s seat,” said Chris Cillizza in WashingtonPost.com. The electoral map strongly favors Democrats, and unless Trump can win Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and several other swing states, Clinton is still on course to secure the 270 Electoral College votes she needs to win. Don’t be so sure, said Rich Lowry in National Review.com. Trump essentially wiped out Clinton’s lead simply by “acting like a somewhat normal presidential candidate” for two weeks. Clinton is widely “loathed and distrusted,” as well as being a boring, plodding campaigner. Democrats are right to be panicking, because if Trump can manage to act like an acceptable leader for the next five weeks, “the biggest black swan event in American electoral history” just might happen.
The candidates now face a “major test”—the first debate, on Sept. 26, said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. Clinton “should have the advantage” because she knows far more about policy, and has “more experience talking about how she would actually govern.” Trump may well struggle to contain his temper, and if his attacks on Clinton go out of bounds, he will play right into her hands. But Clinton also faces real danger, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com, because Trump “has an adolescent bully’s instinct for zeroing in on his target’s most evident weakness.” The three debates will be “the last chance to alter the trajectory of the campaign,” and it’ll be fascinating to see who “rises to the task.”